A Federal Job Is A Career for Life

New federal employees are on probation. They can be easily terminated, at least in theory. But the system isn’t working, according to a new MSPB report.

It is a stereotype that a federal government worker cannot or at least will not be fired. Once you are hired, you can probably stay on the payroll for the rest of your career because firing someone is a long, expensive, arduous process that no sane person wants to experience.

A major exception to this stereotypical image is a new federal employee who is on “probation” for the first year. This probationary period is supposed to be the final step in the examining process for a new federal employee.

In other words, if an employee looks good on paper, comes across well in an interview, has good grades in school and has taken the right courses or has relevant experience needed for a federal job, there is a good chance the person will be hired.

But sometimes what looks good on paper doesn’t work out in practice. We have all had experiences like this and an employment decision is crtical for any company or federal agency. Recognizing this, the probationary period is supposed to be the final test.

Probation and the New Federal Employee

During the probationary period, an agency can fire a new employee and that employee does not have the benefit of most of the usual and numerous appeal rights available to feds. If you are a supervisor, and a new employee just isn’t working out for some reason, you can quickly and easily fire the person. That is the last time you can quickly and easily fire a federal employee. With this background, one would expect a high rate of termination among this batch of new federal employees.

Most federal supervisors probably know about the probationary period. If they have had any training at all in the federal human resources program, the instructor will probably drill home that the time to fire a federal employee is during the probationary period.

But a new study by the Merit Systems Protection Board shows that the probationary period is not being used as it was intended.

Probationary Period Not Used or Ignored

For example, in many agencies, the agency treats a probationary employee just as if he was a federal employee who has been an employee for a number of years. A big advantage of the probationary period is that an agency does not have to jump through hoops to fire someone who can’t do the job. No performance improvement plan is necessary. The agency does not have to spend its time and resources to bring the employee’s performance up to an acceptable level. But, apparently, some agencies do it anyway and require the supervisor to jump through the hoops that would be necessary for a longer term employee.

The MSPB study also found that supervisors often had no intent to get rid of a probationary employee who does not work out. Even in situations in which the supervisor indicated she would not hire the employee again, there was no intent to get rid off the employee during the trial period.

And, probably to no one’s surprise, a new federal employee who cannot do the job or is creating problems, but is not terminated during a probationary period, is not likely to ever leave federal employment. Only 1.6 percent of probationary employees are terminated. After the first year of government service, the rate of termination drops to 0.5 percent and that figure doesn’t change much for the next 20 years of government service. In contract, companies like Microsoft expect that at least six percent of their workforce will be terminated during a given year–presumably so that employees who do not perform as well as others will be fired so the company can hire people who can do a better job.

The MSPB also found that a third of new federal employees did not realize they would be required to serve a probationary period and most did not know what consequences may follow if there were conduct or performance problems. Moreover, most probationary employees indicated they did not think the agency took the probationary period seriously as a time that would be used to evaluate whether they should be retained as a federal employee.

The Board has several recommendations.

For one, it recommends trying to change the culture in federal agencies so that it is not expected that once a person is hired, that person cannot be fired during a probationary period. In other words, the probationary period should be used for its intended purpose–to weed out people who should not remain as a civil service employee.

MSPB also recommends that completion of the probationary period should not be automatic. The agency should have to certify that the person is acceptable as an employee and should not become a regular employee unless the agency certifies the person is acceptable.

Also, the probationary period should be longer than one year in some cases. There is currently a one-year limit to a probationary period. The MSPB recommends extending this to up to three years in some cases.

Finally, the MSPB recommends that supervisors and probationary employees be told about the purpose of the probationary period and supervisors should be supported by the agency when they use this time to terminate people that are not acceptable.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47